Students having trouble choosing a memory for a memoir? Have them make a map.
A few weeks ago, my junior and senior students wrote memoirs… creative personal narratives about an important memory that taught them an important truth about life, growing up, or the world in general.
In the past I’ve always passed out an idea sheet to help students gather ideas for their memoirs. It contains about thirty questions that are intended to spur memories or at least interesting stories. That sheet is beneficial, but this year I wanted to try something new: map-making.
I read about map-making in Writing Life Stories, a book by author and writing coach Bill Roorbach. In his book, he recounts how he has his own students draw maps of special places in their childhoods: their house, a neighborhood, a farm, a grandparents’ house.
Roorbach suggested to his students to draw as detailed as a map as they could. He asked them to include the hiding places, the forbidden zones, and the favorite spots of their location. The point: to jog their memory about a forgotten incident… a long ago discarded recollection of a particularly scary game of tag, for example. Or maybe a memory with a grandparent they had nearly let go of.
Drawing a location will naturally help one remember, says Roorbach. He suggests putting as much detail as possible into their maps. For example,
- Don’t forget the propane tank behind the oak tree.
- The dog bowl under the porch.
- The soybean field.
- The clothesline.
- The garden gnome at the end of the iris patch that you tripped over one time.
My students took about one or two 56-minute class periods to draw their maps. Some finished much more quickly than others and once they landed on a memory, they could start writing. Here are some of the maps (or some detail shots) that my juniors and seniors drew:
Here’s my own example map that I showed students before they started their own. This is my maternal grandparents’ farm in rural southwest Missouri.
My classes wrote first and second drafts of their memoirs. I gave each student full participation points if they reached the word-count minimum, which was 750 words for their second draft. (First drafts could be turned in with only 450 words, but their first drafts did need to be complete with a beginning, middle, and end, including the reflective “lesson learned” part of their memoir.
I still have the second drafts of everyone’s memoirs. In about a month, I’ll pass these back out for further revision. I hope we are able to look at them with “fresh eyes.” We may get into Protocol Peer Review Groups to collaborate on revision and editing.
It’s my hope that there will be a handful of memoirs that can be entered into the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in December.
After students had turned in their second drafts, I asked them their thoughts on the map-making portion of the project. Was it beneficial? Did drawing a map help them recall memories they had forgotten?
I didn’t do a Google Form to survey them, but just asked for a show of hands at the end of class. Some acknowledged that yes, the maps were helpful. Most students, however, seemed indifferent (a common response to just about anything it seems!). But then again, a few were emphatic that the map exercise brought forth the memory that they ended up writing about.
One student in particular agreed that the map helped him. Drawing his farm allowed him to recall a tree that he climbed when he was about twelve. That tree caught on fire when he was still in it due to some burning paper airplanes that a cousin, I believe, flew into the tree. Reading about his fiery hot, melting rubber shoe soles and his ensuing panic made for a stirring and shocking story. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt and the main outcome of the fire was that a cousin had to pick up rocks on the farm for a good while afterward.
This story, “The Burning Tree,” has so much potential for the Scholastic Art and Writing contest. It’s my hope that further revisions and editing will allow us to enter it into the student’s contest account soon.
And to think it all started with making a map.